Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Highlandtown and Eastern Avenue:Not Quite There Yet

Gentrification, it can spread like a super virus taking no prisoners, making once working and lower middle class communities glitzy sought after addresses with home prices and rents sky rocketing to unprecedented levels. Blighted boarded up homes and businesses can be become loft apartments and boutiques or they can hit the wrecking ball to make way for a brand new mixed use development. Gentrification can also be limited and contained within only a few blocks that immediately surround the development. In the case of the Inner Harbor it has spread like a super virus and the question is where will it hit next?
In the 1990s gentrification was taking place strictly south of Eastern Avenue in communities of Fels Point, Canton, and Inner Harbor East. The real estate boom of the first half of the 2000 decade investment jumped across Eastern Avenue west of Patterson Park. Upper Fels Point, Jonestown, Little Italy, Washington Hill, and Butchers Hill were quickly transformed. The momentum of the Inner Harbor and the East Baltimore Biotech Park has lead to private investment north of Patterson Park into Library Square and McElderry Park. When elected Mayor in 1999 Martin O'Malley started a campaign to encourage investment in good neighborhoods that are showing signs of slipping. The campaign was and is known as "Strategic Neigborhood Action Plans" or SNAPs. Many neighborhood clusters applied for this designation and the extreme southeastern neighborhoods among others received it. The cluster included Greektown, Bayview, O'Donnell Heights, Medford, Graceland and Broening Manor. So far so good O'Donnell Heights, a blighted public housing development is being demolished and rebuilt, Athena Square, a new town home development in Greektown is under construction, the Bayview area is being considered for high density Transit Oriented Development, and Eastern Avenue streetscape enhancements from I-95 to the CSX Bridge are under way. I ask Again where will it hit next?
The Answer is Highlandtown but it still has a long way to go . Highlandtown is located just west I-895, south of McElderry Park, North of Canton and Brewers Hill, and East of Patterson Park. Highlandtown and points east grew up with Bethlehem Steel in Dundalk as a means to house its tens of thousands of workers, in fact Highlandtown remained a part of Baltimore County until World War I. Highlandtown, although its residents were white, it was thought of as an ethnic and diverse community for its time. Although predominantly Polish, residents haled from Ireland, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine, Greece, and Italy. The neighborhood consists of row homes that are were cookie cutter, small and narrow in size and without the architectural panache of the grand homes to the north and west. Highlandtown thrived as a diverse European Immigrant community until after World War II. During this time Highlandtown gained a reputation for having some of Baltimore's best bars and pubs In addition to bars Highlandtown, mainly Eastern Avenue had many hair salons, Hampden wasn't the only place the "Bee Hive" hairdo was found. This reputation will play a role in the future of Highlandtown.
Those who could afford it moved to the suburbs and those who couldn't didn't. It wasn't until the major downsizing at Bethlehem Steel in the 1970s and 80s that decline really set in in Highlandtown. In the case of many city neighborhoods with white flight there was resettlement as a black community. This did not take place in Highlandtown. By the time of Highlandtown's decline there were strict laws that forbid blockbusting and not all residents were leaving so they fought any black settlers. In the 1990s Highlandtown continued to lose population and employment and gain crime while other southeast Baltimore neighborhoods were turning around and making a come back. One thing Highlandtown still had going for it was its pubs, with the combination of East Baltimore having tons of Breweries and the diversity of Highlandtown the bars provide a huge variety of food and drinks for their patrons.
By the year 2000, Highlandtown had a vacancy rate of 15%. At the same time Baltimore and America as a whole were preparing for a real estate boom. Baltimore didn't get the full effects of the boom, only the gentrified neighborhoods and Highlandtown. I think they have may have jumped the gun by pricing homes in Highlandtown so high simply because it's a stones throw from Patterson Park and Canton. The residents were still blue collar with a burgeoning Hispanic community as is the case with all neighborhoods near Patterson Park Unfortunately, the Hispanic community as a whole has been the greatest victims of shaky real estate practices . $300-$400k for an unrehabbed row home may be fine for Fels Point but not for Highlandtown. To jump start the Highlandtown market one must look into the past successes of Baltimore revitalization and I think you know where I'm going; homesteading. Not as extreme as the $1 row house in Otterbein but something like $175-$225k for unrehabbed row house in Highlandtown a market segment in Baltimore and Central Maryland that is under served. Vacancies are spread apart throughout the neighborhood leaving no room available for big redevelopment projects but I think that's a good thing for Highlandtown. Highlandtown will make a come back one rehabbed row house at a time.
Highlandtown has had some victories in the past, it's not all bleak. Eastern Avenue has been designated as one of Baltimore's "Main Streets", a Walgreens opened up recently , a new Southeast Anchor Branch of Enoch Pratt Free Library opened up this year and Highlandtown has also been designated as an "Arts and Entertainment District" which if Station North is any indication will gentrify Highlandtown in a New York minute.
Now what's next for Highlandtown? It's a very bare community that will benefit from additional trees, plantings, and streetscape enhancements. The price tags that are being asked for a house in Hghlandtown is one that only a cosmopolitan yuppie could afford so you know what that means. Yoga and Thai Chi studios, Coffee and Tea Bars, trendy upscale restaurants, and outdoor furniture and better lighting.Granted this is a pipe dream, Highlandtown and Eastern Avenue are still not there yet but it is food for thought and they're headed in that direction.

1 comment:

Conoction Media said...

This was a well thought out piece well written and we at the Highlandtown Business Association Thank you